As the clock ticks down to Election Day on November 8, some militia groups in the US are preparing for the unknown as they never have before.
To many citizens, there is nothing more American than the private militia, the apparent ideological descendants of the Founding Fathers, the Second Amendment, and the bands of patriot militiamen that built our country. Over the last several decades, militia groups have experienced a cycle of interest and disinterest, with numbers swelling recently during the Obama presidency.
Whatever their membership, however, private militia groups have traditionally shared one attribute: a suspicion of government that limited political involvement. Now, experts say that militia preparation for Tuesday and beyond is evidence that militia groups have taken on a new role, engaging with national politics in a very real way.
"For years, the anti-government movement kept out of elections, but [Donald] Trump’s campaign has included them in politics instead. I don’t think that these people are going away. We’re facing an energized, politically active, militia movement," says Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.
Private militia groups are embedded in the fabric of the United States’ history, often representing disaffected populations who feel unrepresented by the government. Recently, several more outspoken militia groups have expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s immigration, gun control, or tax policies.
Militia scholar Carolyn Gallaher, an associate professor at American University in Washington, D.C., tells the Monitor that the recent uptick of interest in these groups was preceded by similar swells in the 1980s and 90s.
Foreclosures on family farmers and then-President Bill Clinton’s signing of the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) deal both sparked an upswing in militia membership, for example, while President George W. Bush’s time in the White House saw dwindling interest.
With Mr. Obama in the White House, however, antigovernment "patriot groups" grew in number from 149 in Mr. Bush’s last year in office, to 998 in 2015, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The tally of active militia groups rose from 42 in 2008 to 297 last year.
Yet in the past, these groups largely kept out of politics, due to an inherent distrust in government, Says Dr. Beirich. With Mr. Trump as the Republican candidate for president, however, some observers say that formerly politically aloof groups have been brought into the fold by a nominee who speaks to their concerns.
"The main dynamic is that Donald Trump has talked about the “rigged election” and restoring a lost American past – by doing this, he’s whipped up these militia groups," says Matt Dallek, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Political Management, in a phone interview with the Monitor.
Now, some militia groups say they’re preparing for a rigged election, and the possibility that if Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton makes it to the White House, she’ll consider taking away their guns, Reuters reports.
Members of one militia group, the Oath Keepers, says that they are prepared to “monitor” the elections, guns in hand, to prevent fraud.
"In many respects, the militia movement was suspicious of the system. The fact that they’re now working to 'monitor' the election is significant," Dr. Gallaher tells the Monitor in a phone interview.
One member of a militia group named the Three Percent Security Force, after the three percent of colonial men who supposedly fought in the American Revolution, says he is prepared to offer support to protesters who might choose to march on Washington if Mrs. Clinton is elected.
"I will be there to render assistance to my fellow countrymen, and prevent them from being disarmed, and I will fight and I will kill and I may die in the process," Chris Hill, a paralegal, told Reuters this week.
The Three Percent Security Force engages in training exercises near Atlanta, Ga., to prepare for that eventuality.
"We've [been] building up for this, just like the Marines," Mr. Hill told Reuters. "We are going to really train harder and try to increase our operational capabilities in the event that this is the day that we hoped would never come."
Dr. Dallek says that whether the Three Percent is serious or not, Washington is going to have to take threats of violence like this seriously.
"It’s impossible to know if it is just bluster, and that makes it even more disturbing. There’s no way that the FBI and Secret Service are going to ignore this," he says.